With a title that boasts a level of intimacy this biopic simply doesn’t possess, “Winnie” tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s second wife and co-crusader in broad, black-and-white terms, drawing public criticism from its outspoken subject. Premiering in rough form at the Toronto Film Festival, “Cry the Beloved Country” director Darren James Roodt’s TV-style treatment reduces South Africa’s struggle to the status of an impediment in the blooming romance between life-imprisoned Mandela (Terrence Howard) and his strong-willed partner (Jennifer Hudson), who kept step, only backwards and in heels. Decently acted despite screenplay shortcomings, pic is best suited for femme-friendly cable.
To borrow an African proverb from “Dark Girls” (another film making its Toronto debut), “Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero.” Unfortunately, the underdog’s first tales often have the angry, litany-of-grievances feel found in “Winnie,” which mistake martyrdom for character.
After a brief prologue in which young Winnie (Unathi Kapela) demonstrates her potential despite the impoverished conditions of the rural school where her father teaches, the girl grows up to be Jennifer Hudson, carrying herself with pride among Johannesburg’s powerful white minority. Roodt seems somewhat distracted re-creating the period feel, with its big hats and patterned dresses, to the extent that the first act feels a bit like a fashion show set against the backdrop of apartheid. To quote the character, “Of the limited rights I have, I still have the right to choose my own wardrobe.”
As played by Howard, Mandela seems equal parts playboy and freedom fighter. But even before the smooth operator pulls up to flirt with Winnie waiting in line for the bus, the film has demonstrated that she is a strong, independent woman at a time when the balance of equality is just starting to shift. At one point, Winnie even declines a scholarship to study in Boston, preferring to break barriers at home by becoming South Africa’s first black social worker. Hudson makes it easy to see why Mandela would find Winnie so attractive, while Laurent Eyquem’s score works overtime to ensure that even the sightless will feel the same way. (And that’s nothing compared to the “Don’t Cry for Me, Johannesburg”-like “Bleed for Love,” a Diane Warren-written anthem Hudson performs over the end credits.)
Nelson and Winnie don’t have much time to enjoy their relationship before the authorities intervene — represented by De Vries (a one-note Elias Koteas), who’s literally frothing in his racist agitation. The Mandelas’ wedding ceremony is overshadowed by government spies, and what should be their honeymoon turns ugly when De Vries bursts in without a warrant and defiles Winnie’s wedding cake (in truth, four years passed before the two were separated and Mandela imprisoned). Scenes like this are designed to make your blood boil, but are so heavy-handed in their emotional manipulation, they invite eye-rolling instead.
As conditions get worse, Winnie’s wardrobe gets progressively more fabulous, with the exception of an 18-month stint in solitary confinement, where she is tortured by bad actors (a scene in which Winnie’s singing finally causes one guard to snap veers into camp). Though her husband managed to keep his non-violent stance despite serving 27 years in prison, “Winnie” suggests that her treatment behind bars — coupled with ongoing harassment upon release — explains the ugly transformation that reduced this “mother of the nation” to a figure of notoriety.
The film acknowledges but doesn’t quite know how to handle Winnie’s disgrace, with Hudson’s turn taking a sinister edge as she becomes godmother to a gang of soccer thugs. These later scenes are compromised by stunningly awful makeup effects that lend Howard and Hudson a distracting rubbery look. Otherwise, the production values are reasonably good, judging by the low-resolution print screened in Toronto.